With the publication of the latest version of Education Scotland’s school self-evaluation tool came the announcement that there would also be a version of the document aimed at pupils.1 The purpose, apparently, is to involve pupils in evaluating teaching. Understandably, this has caused considerable consternation amongst teaching professionals. Yet while it has been acknowledged that some teachers may feel uncomfortable about this, the official message appears to be: ‘Tough, you’re just going to have to get on with it.’
Why involve pupils in evaluating teaching?
In our increasingly service-based culture, performance targets and customer evaluations are ubiquitous. Even a simple online purchase or trip to a restaurant usually results in energetic requests for feedback. Any commercial organisation with an eye on high-quality delivery exhorts its employees to listen to its customers. As pupils are the quasi-customers of schools and witness first-hand a teacher’s performances in the classroom, perhaps it’s not surprising that this ethos is now pervading the education system.
But it’s not just about evaluating the teacher’s performance at the front of the class. It’s also about giving pupils opportunities to provide feedback about their own progress.
Can pupils really be objective?
In theory, it may seem obvious that pupils should have some say in how they are educated. However, there are many who have considerable reservations about allowing pupils’ opinions to hold much – if any – sway when it comes to school inspections, on the basis that pupils will not be sufficiently objective.
Most of us had a favourite teacher at school. How many of us, though, as adults still believe that individual was their best teacher? Evidence suggests that the correlation between the most popular teacher – often the one who puts on a show every time they stand in front of the class – and the highest quality of teaching is much weaker than we would believe as children. This theory has been explored further by researchers in the USA, who studied pupils’ responses to a lesson delivered by an actor whose performance was certainly entertaining and convincing. However, the content of the lesson was almost entirely fictional.2 Perhaps as expected, the pupils gave very positive evaluations of the lesson, yet they hadn’t learned anything of substance.
The article then goes on to examine other ways in which pupils may be involved in evaluating teaching quality, before concluding that they are at best unreliable judges.
As teachers, we can probably all add our own anecdotal evidence to support this conclusion. Will the easily led child who follows another child into trouble and is then chastised give the teacher a fair evaluation? Probably not, if they suspect the incident may be mentioned to a parent who will then also reprimand them. They’re probably more likely to give the teacher a slating at home in an attempt to devalue whatever the teacher may subsequently have to say to the parent. What about the quietly compliant child who is privately frustrated because they can’t keep up with their friend in class? There’s a good chance they will feel their teacher is somehow being unfair rather than look to themselves for reasons why they may not be as achieving as much as their friend.
So how can pupils contribute to the evaluation of teaching?
Most teachers would probably wish for open dialogue with the pupils in these scenarios, as the pupil’s point of view is often very informative. But for such evaluations to be taken as proof of a teacher’s effectiveness or otherwise is ludicrous. Children’s true motivations are often complex, emotionally driven and, at times, carefully concealed, so while it may be hugely beneficial for a teacher to understand the reasons why a child is behaving in a certain way, there is danger inherent in taking a child’s opinion completely at face value.
One of the aims of any decent education must be to help children learn how to make fair judgements, to understand about subjectivity and to voice opinions respectfully. Allowing children to discuss how they feel about their learning environment with members of staff and other pupils is arguably an effective way of developing these skills, particularly if they feel that their views are being taken seriously. Part of that process should include consideration of the possible impacts of an overly negative – or positive – evaluation, as well as encouraging pupils to understand how their own actions and emotional responses may have influenced their opinion unfairly.
However, creating a situation where pupils’ snapshot evaluations of teaching quality hold weight in high-stakes inspections seems irresponsible, particularly if the pupils are not required to account for their opinions. Such a situation might well foster the belief that voicing strident opinions without taking any responsibility for them is acceptable, while doing nothing to help pupils develop the skills necessary to deliver constructive feedback in the future.
A far more productive approach might be for inspectors to require schools to show that they have in place procedures for acquiring and responding to feedback from pupils, while the actual content of that feedback remains confidential.